The Traditional Understanding of Power and Strategy

 

To understand how power and strategy work in an age of spectacle, one must first begin with traditional notions of these terms and their interaction. For states in the terrestrial material world, how does one accrue power and how does one apply this power to realize goals and interests? A long history of realist political thought identifies power as material and human resources organized into military capability that can be deployed in a manner to take and hold rival cities and territory. This idea was given its most elaborate modern expression by the Prussian military strategist and soldier Carl Von Clausewitz in his tome On War, where he discusses the use and practice of armed conflict as a means to settle political disputes among states. Beyond the specifics of Clausewitz’s thought, however, is also the contention that though it represents a dominant way of thinking about power and strategy for several centuries, the transformation of world politics into new assemblages of power over the past decades has reduced some its explanatory elegance, perhaps requiring some revisions or the introduction of newer concepts to place alongside it.

Before getting to this last point, let’s go back to Clausewitz’s ideas themselves. The first important distinction to observe about war is that it is a violent and coercive form of power that involves lethal force. As Clausewitz himself states, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill out will.”[1] States are the actors that are traditionally the belligerents in war at the interstate level in that they bring together the three “trinity” elements of war: violence, chance and politics captured in their corresponding institutions of the people, the army and the government.[2] Stated another way, conflict between two states pits two armies derived from two peoples who act at the command of two governments. Even though Clausewitz does not specifically insist the state is an essential ingredient of war, many who have interpreted him insist that the state is essential to Clausewitz’s notion of war.[3] Clausewitz does talk about “People’s War,” but he more or less discusses it as a variation on the main themes of armed combat in On War.[4] One need not dwell on this point for too long—what is relevant here is the idea that war (and the preparation for war) is an activity that involves coercive violence in pursuit of a particular political goal.

The second category Clausewtiz’s tome provides is in the realm of strategy—namely how does one deploy the power at one’s disposal to realize the combat goal of defeating the enemy and by extension realizing the political goal of attaining a national interest priority? Clausewitz addresses this question deeper in the text:

One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.[5]

The power of the state should thus be directed precisely at the source of the opposition’s power. If this is understood in terms of the battlefield, then the force should be directed at breaking the strongest unit of that opposing army, supply hub, critical infrastructure, command and control capability, and any other assets that are essential for the potential success of the enemy. One should not, in this view, avoid direct confrontation in favor of some sort of “indirect approach” that seeks to weaken or surprise the adversary. Though engaging is this type of direct conflict can be costly in terms of men and material, the advantage is to bring the conflict to as rapid a conclusion as possible. Ultimately, there is greater cost in delaying the inevitable fight in favor of trying to maneuver or finesse a way to victory without having to put in the blood sweat and tears that is almost always necessary.

This very rough discussion of Clausewitz yields two important analytical categories for understanding the larger contest of power and conflict in a society of the spectacle. One is the nature of power—in this case military power that lethal and violent in nature. Though many other forms of power exists (and these other forms, like “soft power,” “smart power,” and “network power,” etc. will be discussed at length in future posts), the kind of coercive power identified here has a certain elemental nature about it that makes it a good starting point for a larger discussion. The second category is that of strategy—the way power is deployed to realize state interests. In this case, the Clausewitzian strategy is to use lethal violent force directed at a specific point of gravity. If sufficient force is deployed at this point to cause imbalance and disjuncture in the adversary, then victory can be achieved and interests can be realized.

For much of (western) history, this has been the default framework for states and empires operating around the world. In the case of great power conflict, states would build up their militaries, position them against one another in theaters of conflict around the world, maneuver around each other in the hopes of protecting or gaining access to key resources, and if necessary, unleashing that power at targets that would push one’s adversary away from the objective. In some cases this was done relatively easily, such as the US attack on the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, and in some cases, the centers of gravity were sufficiently protected and planted that their full destruction never came about, as in the case of World War I, where the two alliances fought to a stalemate—one not completely able to knock the other totally off-balance. In the case of imperial interactions, the attacks were not strictly military in nature, but also included attacks on economic, social and cultural centers of balance. Combat most certainly took place in places like Sudan and Egypt under the flag of Great Britain and Algeria under the flag of France, but the state’s power extended beyond the battlefield to ensure subjected people could not fight back as both an army or as any other collective entity.

Yet is this kind of direct lethal force the only kind of power available to states? Can a state realize its interests in other ways than war? If politics is an ingredient in war, can a state impact these politics in ways other than the massive mobilization of a military? Asked another way, can a state use lethal force without resort to war? The answer, of course, is yes—though this represents a different strategic approach. This space will take up this question in the next post.

     [1] Carl von Clausewitz, One War (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1968), 101

     [2] Ibid., 121-122.

     [3] Anatol Rapoport in Introduction to ibid., 13.

     [4] See Carl von Clausewitz, “People’s War” in Walter Laqueur, The Guerilla Reader: A Historical Anthology (New York: Times Mirror, 1977), 31-36.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 595-596.

Power and Strategy in the Age of the Spectacle

One of the insights the idea of the society of the spectacle reveals is the idea of a form of power in global politics that is not tied explicitly to military capability or state authority. This is not to say that these notions of power do not exist—just that they need not be the starting point for understanding the elements of the global assemblage of power in late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This provides some important flexibility in trying to understand how both states and other transnational actors are maneuvering around each other in order to gain an advantageous position in pursuit of their interests. Few examples of this are as illuminating as Russia, which by traditional measurements of power would be considered a sickly middle-tier power whose military is a shadow of its former self and its economic health is overly dependent on the current price of oil. Instead, Russia is perceived by prominent factions in western ruling classes as one of the greatest security threats to American hegemony and quite possibly a malevolent hub of covert manipulation and clandestine influence whose greatest coup was the engineering of Donald Trump into the White House to serve as Putin’s proxy. Indeed, so convinced are some in the US regulatory apparatus that Russia can pull strings in US political society that they have compelled the American arm of the Russian state television service (RT) to register as a foreign agent (a move that, among other things, deprives it of automatic 1st Amendment protections).

Whatever the true nature of Russia’s involvement in US politics is (a clear picture of which is still not readily apparent and up for debate), the example of Russia “maybe” or “possibly” rigging or manipulating the US election represents how the ability to use trickery, deception, illusion and ruse are increasingly becoming skills states and other actors need to come to grips with if the wish to realize their interests and protect their assets. Unfortunately, much of the theorizing about global politics today still overlooks these capacities or casts them into broad categories like “soft power” or “network power” where they are not given much space to provide useful insights on the ways formations of power are changing with advancing media capabilities. This oversight is made at their own peril, for those who are immersed in this world are quite confident of what they themselves are capable of. One sample of this was recorded by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who chronicled a phone message she received in 2010 from a prominent hacker who went by the nickname of weev. Referencing an upcoming speech she was scheduled to give, weev said, “I see that you are giving a presentation on hackers, trolls and the politics of spectacle. And I just want to say that I am the master of the spectacle.”[1]

These hackers and hoaxers were particularly effective in 2010 when this recoding was made. This was the year of the Wikileaks release of US State Department cables and the height of Anonymous activism and host of other forms of mischief and mayhem that gave states like the United States a black eye. Since then, what was once the purview of a handful of troublemakers is now increasingly an arm of the military industrial complex of contemporary great powers whose interests in cultivating their power over digital media is not merely about protecting their respective homelands but also about conjuring up illusions from the digital ether to shape and shift the decision-making matrices and popular fantasies of foreign rivals (ironically, something that has been going in their own countries in the private sphere since the advent of mass communications).

The question becomes at this point, with states clearly taking a greater interest in exploiting the media, communications, and social networking technologies now available, is how does one conceptualize and theorize how states will try to exploit these newly emerging capabilities and what strategies are available to put them to use? Alongside of this is the question of how these new forms and strategies of power integrate (or fail to integrate) with already existing forms of power—especially that of military capability which is seen as the original and most elemental form of power in international politics. In future posts, shaking how “spectacular power”—the power of the elements of the spectacle—exist in the greater assemblage of power neoliberal power will be a focus of this space. In the future, it is hoped that a more theoretically sound understanding of this power emerges and can be applied to events like Russian manipulation of social media platforms to put them in their proper context. If we understand media and spectacle power in the same way as military power, then perhaps some of the same strategic dynamics can be observed or new dynamics can be identified.

There is also a historical question that also needs to be addressed. Media and propaganda capabilities have been around in some form for some time. To read the likes of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan is to understand how the development of media capabilities is one of the essential stories of the rise of western civilization (and western imperialism). The histories of how the British and French Empires, Nazi Germany, and the Cold War powers used media as a supplement to traditional physical force has been told numerous times in numerous ways. What continuities and changes exist in today’s world of digital technology and a US hegemon presiding over a neoliberal assemblage of power from this previous era and what lessons do they teach those willing to see them? Can one see a world where the ability to deliver in a directed and deliberate way the dreams and delights of comsumer culture (or at least the representation of them) a greater from of power than the ability to deliver deadly destruction? Or, if indeed Russia had a direct impact on the 2016 election, the directed delivery is not dreams, but of fears and terrors; not cultivating  a sense of abundance and security, but of threats and hatreds. Such is the nature of the digital world of today that media echo chambers are places where, like illusionist wizards from fantasy novels, demons and ghosts are conjured up to scare and intimidate millions of people into behaviors they might not otherwise engage in. The ability to alter such behavior is the essence of theoretical understandings of power (Robert Dahl defines one element of power as the ability of A to get B to do what B otherwise would not do), and coming to grips with this new form power (and what strategies one can use to deploy it) or important question for any actors seeking their interests in the society of the spectacle.

The hope is that future posts in this space will begin to make inquiries in this direction.

     [1] weev quoted in Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014), 20.

Terrorism Fatigue and the Spectacle

At the heart of the spectacle is the relentless need for innovation and novelty. Alberto Toscano put it best when he says:

Create. Invent, Innovate, Network. Under the non-authoritarian hegemony of capitalist realism such ubiquitous imperatives have come to occupy the place of the seemingly exhausted, or unduly crass, industrial command: produce.[1]

Sustaining this drive to something new and different to make and sell in a world already awash in consumer goods, services and experiences is perhaps the greatest challenge of all facets of twenty-first century economic production. It means the spectacle must constantly remake the world of consumer needs and lifestyle aspiration to ensure the ugliness of the contemporary world hiding in plain sight remains an annoying trifle, a lamentable tragedy, or a “costs of doing business.”

Guy Debord argued this need for innovation and novelty in the spectacle had the effect of transforming time itself—from traditional cyclical time where humankind experience nature and history to what he labels as pseudocyclical time, or time processed into measured commodified units divided into work, leisure, retirement, etc.. Once cut up and packaged:

 “(t)hese commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life, whose cyclical return we are supposed  to look forward to. But all that is really happening is that the spectacle is displaying and reproducing itself at a higher level of intensity. What is presented as true life turns out to be merely a more truly spectacular life.[2]

In practical terms, what Debord is describing here is not dissimilar to the process of the “cool hunt,” or the means by which marketing firms and advertising agencies scour society for morsels of originality and authenticity to capture and use for the latest wave of promotional campaigns and material. One marketing executive describes it thusly:

. . . Actually, it’s a triangle. At the top of the triangle, there’s the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trendsetter, which we would say is about 17 percent. They pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing, and they claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter–it’s questionable exactly what their percentage is–but they are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And they take what the trendsetter is doing, and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it.[3]

The cool hunt has a certain paradoxical nature about it that stems from the pressures for ever greater demands for sales and profit. The “next big thing” must be found and packaged as quickly as possible lest the mass of consumers become distracted by movements and forces beyond the control of the advertising companies. And yet, when this “next big thing” is found, the act of mass production destroys it, causing the cycle to repeat itself. The need for the fresh and new becomes greater even as the supply of what is fresh and new begins to dwindle.

It may seem vulgar to compare terrorist attacks (including media coverage and public reactions to these attacks) with marketing strategies, but in the society of the spectacle, politics and terrorism are just two more commodities to brand and distribute to the masses hungry for new forms of entertainment. On some level, many terrorist “masterminds” and preachers of aggressive expansionist Islam were aware of the power of the spectacle in the western world and sought to incorporate this phenomenon into their strategies. One of the more famous explications of this point came from Abu Bakr Naji, author of The Management of Savagery, a terrorist “guidebook” of sorts that was popular among ISIS fighters when that group was still in its ascent. In the preface of this work, Naji describes the source of the Western powers and why they were successful in controlling lands of Islam:

The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests. There is no doubt that the power which God gave to the two superpowers (America and Russia) was overwhelming in the estimation of humans. However, in reality and after careful reflection using pure, human reason, (one comes to understand that this power) is not able to impose its authority from the country of the center–from America, for example, or Russia–upon lands in Egypt and Yemen, for example, unless these (latter) countries submit to those powers entirely of their own accord. It is correct that this power is overwhelming and that it seeks help from the power of local regimes controlled by who rule the Islamic world. Yet all of that is not enough (to completely control the satellite states). Therefore, the two superpowers must resort to using a deceptive media halo which portrays these powers as non-coercive and world-encompassing, able to reach into everyearth and heaven as if they possess the power of the Creator of creation. But the interesting thing that happened is that these two superpowers believed, for a time, their media deception: that they are actually a power capable of completely controlling any place in the entire world, and that (this power) bears the characteristics of the power of the Creator. According to the media deception, it is an all-encompassing, overwhelming power and people are subservient to it not only through fear, but also through love because it spreads freedom, justice, equality among humanity, and various other slogans.[4]

What is clearly implied in this lengthy passage is that the media of western culture, in its effort to constantly keep the masses amused and distracted, has also distorted the true capabilities of western military power and the ability to keep the west safe from attack. This frequently referenced “media halo” works hand-in-hand with the military to create the appearance of safety and insularity from whatever dangers that might lurk from the outside world. In this way, Naji is referencing something similar to what Guy Debord called the “integrated spectacle,” where consumer culture and authoritarian power work together to protect and legitimize the status quo assemblage of power in society.

The choices for those like Al Qaeda and ISIS who wish to attack the United States and other western powers is to either go after the military and political capability or to pierce the “media halo” that creates the false sense of security. The first option, though carried out with success on September 11th, is nevertheless a dead end. Another strategist of global jihad, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, explained why, despite the success of September 11th, the strategy of attacking the heart of western military and financial power was doomed to fail:

Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, programs for fighting terrorism were able to disband those organizations security-wise, militarily defeat them, isolate them from their masses [of followers], damage their reputation, dry out their financial resources, make their elements homeless, and put them in a constant state of fear, starvation, and lack of funds and people[5]

The better approach, for al-Suri, is to take advantage of global media capabilities—especially social media capabilities in their then nascent stage—to inspire devout Muslims scattered around the world to launch their own do-it-yourself style attacks in the locations where they live, thus avoiding the surveillance and potency of the US military and its allies. By putting forth a global imperative, or in al-Suri’s word’s “call,” pious warriors of Islam can strike the enemy where it is most vulnerable and pierce the “media halo” referred to by Naji. Indeed, the media halo will itself by a carrier of the message of the “call.” As Al-Suri himself says:

“The Call is to convoy the idea in succinct and detailed ways in order to enable the youth, who are determined to fight a jihad, to enter this call and form their own Units independently”[6]

For the last few years, al-Suri’s strategy of small localized attacks launched with whatever the local attackers could use as weapons paid enormous dividends, perhaps contributing to the election of Donald Trump.[7] Yet there was one flaw to this strategy that perhaps did not become apparent until a few weeks ago in New York—terror attacks that do not rise to a certain undefined level of devastation and horror no longer attract the same kind of attention as they would in the past. Indeed, in terms of spreading mass slaughter and murder, everyday ordinary Americans with access to military-grade firearms can do as much damage as any ISIS inspired zealot. Indeed, the ISIS-claimed truck rampage attack in New York City was sandwiched-in between the worst mass shooting in recent American history (Las Vegas) and the sixth-worst mass shooting in recent American history (Texas). Meanwhile, less than 48 hours after the shooting outside San Antonio, the reporter Shaun King observed that the top trending topic on Twitter was Real Housewives of Atlanta.[8]

This leaves a macabre dilemma for those who still wish to perpetuate terrorist violence against the United States. Seeing that their efforts to capture and co-opt the spectacle of the west is being undermined by the violent people they are trying to destroy, terrorists may decide to abandon the Al-Suri model and engage in the ultimate cool hunt–a form of attack against American society that is unlike anything ever seen before. This could take the form of either a return to the Khalid Sheik Mohammad model of hijacking airliners and attacking skyscrapers in the hope of creating a genuine apocalyptic maelstrom that the spectacle cannot look away form, or to come up with a new strategy that tries to insert fear and chaos into western society in some other yet-to-be anticipated way (one might speculate that efforts of acquiring a weapon of mass destruction will take on a new intensity now). One hopes this is not the case, but given how effective we Americans are at killing each other en masse and how unmoved the rest of the country seems to be in the wake of these killings, it is the terrorists who find themselves marveling at the brutality of us.

     [1] Alberto Toscano, “In Praise of Negativism,” in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke, Deleuze, Guttari and the Production of the New (New York: Continuum, 2008), 56.

     [2]Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 84.

     [3]  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/interviews/gordonandlee.html

     [4] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Though Which the Umma Will Pass, William McCants (trans.) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 2006), 7-8.

     [5] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri quoted in Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Lige of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 352.

     [6] Ibid., 443.

     [7]  https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/05/how-donald-trump-could-win-the-white-house

     [8]  https://twitter.com/ShaunKing/status/927359736424648705

Disaster and the Spectacle

It’s been several weeks since Hurricane Maria stuck Puerto Rico as a near Category Five hurricane that in a matter of hours transformed the US protectorate from the most developed island in the Caribbean Sea to a devastated community thrown back into the past several hundred years. Gone in the aftermath of the storm was access to electric power, clean drinking water, unobstructed roadways, and almost every sign of twenty-first century civilization. Once the shock of the initial impact wore off, the struggle to restore basic services to the island and its many isolated communities began. Only there was one problem—the process of restoration never happened. As the days after the arrival of Maria turned into weeks, the process of recovery stubbornly refused to transpire or took place with glacial lethargy.

Yet to observe some of the coverage in the media in the aftermath of the hurricane’s impact, this slowly unfolding disaster was not easily observable. Indeed, what emerged from the mainstream accounts of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico was a contested narrative of local leaders calling for assistance and warning of a humanitarian catastrophe without outside help and leaders in Washington—most especially President Trump through his Twitter feed—praising the rapid response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and celebrating the success.[1] Such contradictory statements are no doubt confusing for the casual observer, who most likely harbors genuine concern for the fate of Puerto Ricans but also took the state and government at its word when it said it was doing everything it could to help those in need. It turns out, however, that this confusion is actually a sign of the society of the spectacle succeeding in its mission to problematize and obscure what should be a straight-forward news story about a humanitarian crisis and the inability for the state to adequately address it. Indeed, if we look back to the last major humanitarian disaster involving a major hurricane, we can actually see how the spectacle has perfected its technique of sensationally obscuring a tragic event.

We know now—over ten years after the fact—that the US government lacked the requisite skills, competence, planning, training, and motivation to help the people of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. Yet this reality was not immediately apparent, in part because the one skill that most people in charge of relief efforts in Louisiana had was media and public relations. As thousands of people endured squalid conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome—places city officials had told local residents to go to seek shelter—the dominant media narrative at the time was that local, state and federal disaster relief was going (forgive the pun) swimmingly. Indeed, it was in this context that George W. Bush famously told then head of FEMA, Michael Brown, that he was doing a “heck of a job.”[2] The reality, of course, was that hundreds had died and thousands more were in mortal danger. The damage done to the city by the floods would take years to repair and the city as it existed then would probably never return.

The key fact lost in all of this is that although Brown resigned in shame a few days after Bush paid him the infamous compliment, the general aim of disaster relief in the society of the spectacle had been accomplished. When it became apparent that the public’s expectation of proper disaster relief in New Orleans didn’t meet up with the reality, the reaction of the government was to put forth leading administrators to say that things were fine and there is nothing to worry about. Bush’s comment to Brown was only one of several dubious statements. In  its account of the aftermath of the storm, PBS’s Frontline documents the following comments by leading government officials:

At a press conference in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, Gov. Blanco says, “Mr. President, thank you thank you, thank you. You have responded to my calls.” Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, says he is “extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government and federal partners … to this terrible tragedy.” And Michael Brown tells Louisiana officials, “What I’ve seen here today is a team that is very tight knit, working closely together, being very professional … and making the right calls.”[3]

This spectacle of self-congratulation and circle-backpatting drove then mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin so mad he said:

“This is ridiculous. I don’t want to see anyone doing any more goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city and they come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops which we can’t even count.”[4]

It is easy to see why Nagin was justified in his anger, but for those who see these emergencies unfold in the context  of the society of the spectacle, they shouldn’t be surprising. Debord discusses in Society of the Spectacle how society transforms itself from a world of being into having, representing the transformation of the economy from simple accumulation to industrial production, and then a second “general shift from having to appearing—all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose into appearances.”[5] In this case, the “having” of emergency relief supplies has been transformed into the “appearing” of these relief supplies through the various press conferences of leading officials discussing the distribution of said relief supplies (though little to no evidence of the actual material supplies is provided). And as the fiasco of unpreparedness proceeds, the more press conferences that are held to once again try to provide the appearance of actual material relief taking place. Given enough time and attention, genuine relief does take place and the material that should have been on station before the storm is eventually brought on line. But by this time the spectacle has manufactured other distractions in other places to capture the public’s attention and the outrage everyone felt during the time of crisis subsides (or is redirected elsewhere). Those in charge of disaster relief on some level know this, and the trick is always to provide enough reassurance that all is well so that the combination of the spectacle and the public’s short attention spans result in lost interest. The inadequacies and incompetence can then proceed as normal.

It is interesting to note that in the wake of the impact of Maria in Puerto Rico, infamous former FEMA head Michael Brown observed that it appeared the mismanagement evident on the island demonstrated that the government didn’t learn anything.[6] This isn’t true. The government learned quite a bit in so far as to push the logic of the spectacle further in an effort to distort what in objective terms is a significant humanitarian crisis. Indeed, as with so many other related issues, having a President who is a veteran of reality television and instinctually knows how to manipulate the spectacle is a valuable asset. Trump’s intentional lambasting and insulting of local leaders like the mayor of San Juan is just the kind of distraction material that allows genuine scrutiny of the government’s botched efforts at relief and recovery work to not take place. [7] Trump also made sure to pay a visit to the battered island and engage in some genuinely bizarre behavior (most likely not intentional, but the results had the desired effect) in order to ensure critical reviews of dubious US policies (some of which, like the Jones Act, harken back to the days of European colonial monopolies) remain minimized.[8] During Katrina, individuals like Michael Brown eventually did lose their job for their incompetence. As the death toll rises in Puerto Rico, no one has lost their job of been severely publicly censured, general interest in the recovery effort is waning, and events like the Las Vegas shooting have stolen the limelight. The system is working just as designed.

Yet there is an undertone of something bigger afoot that even an entity as powerful as the spectacle cannot completely keep concealed forever. Debord discusses this in a piece he wrote about the challenges pollution and environmental degradation pose to the legitimacy of consumer capitalism. In an essay entitled A Sick Planet, Debord writes

The masters of society are now obliged to speak of pollution, both in order to combat it…and in order to conceal it, for the plain fact that such harmful and dangerous trends exist constitutes an immense motive for revolt…[9]

Events like Katrina and Maria are some of the grisliest evidence of an incompetent government and a society of the spectacle that is more adept at appearing to function well than actually function well. If the state cannot deliver basic security to its people when unprecedented weather phenomenon strike, than what other basic securities is it also not adept at providing (but nevertheless charges high taxes and demands obedience in an authoritarian manner to provide)? How much of the current functioning of the government and society under its capitalist leadership is a product of good leadership or sheer inertia? Is the dysfunction on display through the fog of the spectacle in places like Puerto Rico a preview of things to come to the rest of the world and at times when there are no storms or civil unrest or other external factors? Finally, if this is a preview of the future, what obligation exists to sit back and allow such an eventuality to take place? As Debord remarks in Commentatries on the Society of the Spectacle, one of the key functions of the spectacle is to offer all possible alternatives to the status quo as terrifying and grotesque. But if delivering basic necessities in an emergency is beyond the resources of a heavily bureaucratized and militarized state, and if this incompetence is a harbinger of things to come in non-emergency settings, what incentive is there for the masses to continue to accept its legitimacy? To repeat the last part of Debord’s quote, when will the spectacle no longer be able to obscure “an immense motive for revolt.”

[1] For the former, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/10/01/san-juan-mayor-continues-calls-for-relief-after-attacks-from-trump/?utm_term=.3b40ca602450. For the later, see http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trump-10-puerto-rico-hurricane-response-article-1.3574443

[2] http://politicaldictionary.com/words/heck-of-a-job/

[3] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/cron.html

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4209174.stm

[5] Guy Debrod, Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/25/ex-fema-chief-michael-brown-we-havent-learned-anything-from-katrina.html

[7] http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/30/politics/trump-tweets-puerto-rico-mayor/index.html

[8] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-s-roll-puerto-rico-n807216

[9] Debord, A Sick Planet (New York: Seagull, 2008), 82.

Spectacular Protest

There appears to be a crack in the sports and entertainment industrial complex of American society. What began as a mostly solitary gesture against racial injustice and police brutality by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has ballooned into a fully formed media maelstrom. Kaepernick’s protest consisted of going down onto one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner—a ritual that precedes every NFL game (and indeed pretty much every organized sporting event from the pee-wee level to the professional ranks). As the football season last year proceeded, more and more fans and reporters began to take note of Kaepernick’s actions, and in a few cases, Kaepernick was joined by other athletes in the NFL and other sports. Before long, a strong backlash had developed against the protests, with many accusing Kaepernick of disrespecting the flag, active military personal and veterans in order to make his partisan statement. As the new NFL season began last month, a handful of players continued to take knees during the anthem while Kaepernick himself appeared to have been blacklisted by the NFL as he was unable to find a spot one of the sport’s professional rosters despite there being an apparent demand for the kind of quarterbacking talent and skill Kaepernick possess.

As a previous post on this space has argued, NFL games are a rather stark example of what Debord called the “integrated spectacle”—the unification of the most effective attributes of consumer capitalism and totalitarian militarism. The lavish patriotic extravaganzas that occur before and during games as well as special “military appreciation” weeks during the season weave a seamless fabric of entertainment and power that distract and deflect popular attention away from the conflicts and contradictions in the personal lives of individuals and collective life of the nation. Kaepernick’s protests place a pall on the pageantry of the spectacle and threaten to insert an element of “real life” into a proceeding designed explicitly to keep the despair of everyday existence at bay. With many commentators and disgruntled fans calling for a boycott of the NFL, might one of the key complexes of American social power be on the verge of collapse? Moreover, will Kaepernick’s protests create enough fervor in the social world of the United States that politicians will take up the cause of racial injustice and problematic police conduct?

Thesis 9 of the Society of the Spectacle states: “In a world that has really been turned upside, the true is a moment of falsehood.”[1] Kaepernick’s protests no doubt come from a place of genuine concern and authenticity on his part, but the nature of the spectacle as captured in the quote is such that these authentic gestures will be transformed into a carnival of controversy. And as has been suggested before, few understand this better on the instinctual level than President Trump, who threw gasoline on the controversy when he recently called anyone who knelt during the anthem was a “son of a bitch” and that the owners should “get them off the field.” One this and similarly phrased tweets went out, media hype machine went into full throttle. The panoply of sports debate shows dispensing out “hot takes” did not disappoint (and surprisingly many of them were quite supportive of the kneeling players). On social media, the scene was much confrontational and ugly, including multiple videos of fans burning their season tickets in disgust and one tweeter gleefully using the N-word toward the coach of the team he ostensibly supports.

Behind all this showcased controversy, however, is an uncomfortable phenomenon—the more heated and intense the debate, the less likely any substantive change will take place. In Thesis 24 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes, “The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.”[2] For all the debate, these controversies are less about the verbal search for a consensus on a pressing social issue, and more about demonstrating how insurgent acts of dissent can be neutralized and transformed in such a way that the net effect is to make the status quo even stronger. Opinions are offered, rants are unleashed, hot takes dispensed, and a few ill-mannered tweets are offered up by the President of the United States in a manner that greatly magnifies the place of the controversy in the larger world-historical moment. In the meantime, an audience of millions consumes the controversy until they have had their fill and some other pseudo-manufactured crisis emerges to change the subject. Meanwhile, the actual problem that prompted Kaepernick’s kneeling remains ignored, as do a handful of other genuine life-and-death issues (hurricane damage in the Caribbean, Catalonia and Kurdish independence movements in Spain and Iraq).

Yet there are places where the issues that Kaepernick wanted to highlight are the subject of genuine struggle. As the last post of this space explored, St. Louis is an on-going site of contestation and clash over the nature of police brutality and a compromised justice system. There has almost no mention of the nightly demonstrations there in the mainstream media—and one should not expect there to be. This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t spaces were one can get access to information about them and stay updated. One of the positive elements of the spectacle of disintegration is the emergence of insurgent media sources that do not internalize the values of the traditional spectacle and thus are less prone to its contradictions. These sources also tend to be local in their orientation and seek corresponding local solutions—a likely important step in seeking redress of grievances given the lack of interests in the federal tier of government for such problems. If one is truly moved by the issues Kaepernick attempted to raise through his kneeling, one of the few places where one can actually do something about it (again, at a very local level, as the spectacle prevents any kind of mass mobilization unless it benefits the spectacle itself) one should direct their attention and efforts toward St. Louis.

     [1] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [2] Ibid., 7.

Civil Unrest in the Society of the Spectacle

The acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in St. Louis has released a wave of social and racial tensions not seen there since the controversy over the Michael Brown police killing in Ferguson in 2014. Those heady days in Ferguson were part of a larger set of foundational events that included the killing of Trayvon Martin and the mysterious death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore that have brought about a “third wave” of the civil rights movement to deal with what Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow” epitomized by the structural racism of the American criminal justice system.[1] The events in Ferguson were also significant because they were among the first examples of “bottom-up” style digital journalism from individuals not working for private print or broadcast media outlets. Empowered by access to relatively cheap digital media technology, these individuals—ranging from a mobility-challenged woman who live-streamed images as she moved along police lines in her wheelchair to a local resident who communicated events almost exclusively through Vine clips—provided a gritty and authentic view of the protests that was lacking in virtually all conventional media outlets that were often overly deferential to police narratives and not especially welcome among the ranks of the protesters themselves.

These events can also be interpreted from the perspective of the Debord’s notion of the society of the spectacle, especially in terms of his later concept of the “spectacle of integration.” As elaborated in a previous post, the spectacle of integration is the unification of two phenomena of the twentieth century—the rise of totalitarianism and its use of mass media technology to deify demagogues and glorify the coercive capability of the state and co-incidental rise of commodity fetishism and consumerism manifested in the ubiquitous deployment of advertising, branding, public relations and other sociological and psychological techniques to get people to purchase things they don’t necessarily want or need. Debord labeled these the “concentrated” and “diffuse” spectacles that fuse together as part of the process of globalization taking place after the fall of the Soviet Union. The integrated spectacle unites, glorifies and protects the structures of neoliberal world order in a way that preys upon both the fantasies and fears of the world’s population, thus making it especially resistant to efforts by dissidents to organize and effect social or political change.

Indeed, as one observes the unfolding confrontations in central St. Louis, the seams of the integrated spectacle are easily traceable. The stage is set by the combination of an increasingly militarized police force sporting equipment and vehicles designed to both simultaneously intimidate and fascinate (indeed police agencies seem to really enjoy showing off tactical gear and vehicles at local “open houses”) and a local and national media apparatus that is built to cover breaking news in a strictly sensationalistic and episodic fashion. In the name of law and order, police forces deploy a dazzling array of advanced crowd control and tactical weaponry that produces a stream of visceral images broadcast news outlets absorb into their cameras and wring out on their programming. Audiences, drawn by an involuntary reptilian impulse to the lights and movements of the images on their screen, gaze in wonder and excitement at the unfolding spectacle. Yet the news outlets broadcasting these images provide little or no context of why the events happen in the first place. Alternatively, if context is provided, it is of a very limited and focused nature pertaining to the unfolding action and usually consisting of a pre-fabricated frame like “forces of order quell forces of anarchy.” The fact that the unrest is the result of larger systemic problems of historical injustices is largely ignored.

According to Debord’s notion of the integrated spectacle, the larger problems are ignored because the existence of those problems serves the maintenance of the status quo. This is  due to the  strategy of tension (again, see the previously linked post) and according to Martin Bull and James Newell, this strategy is “predicated on the basis of spreading a climate of fear to provide a perceived necessity for a restoration of public order…(.)”[2] Though Bull and Newell are writing in the context of Italian political unrest in the 1970s, the phenomena is the same—the threat of violent disruption of consumerist bliss by a poorly understood threat requires the state to exercise overwhelming and brutal force in order to “keep you safe.” The actual threat may be small or localized, but what matters here isn’t the qualitative nature of the specific threat but the mere fact that it is out there “somewhere” and only the state has the ability to protect you (so long as it has the latest in weapons and tactical technology). In terms of creating an integrated spectacle, the strategy of tension gives the state a path to enter and exploit the communications infrastructure of the diffuse spectacle and facilitates the creation of a situation where “spectacular government, which now possess all the means to falsify the whole of production and perception, is the absolute master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of plans which will shape the most distant future.”[3]

Whether consciously or not, governments in St. Louis have engaged in this strategy of tension in the Jason Stockley verdict. The Missouri National Guard was called up, public buildings in downtown St. Louis were surrounded by fences, private businesses boarded up their windows, and schools cancelled class for the day of the verdict. Yet there were two great unknowns here that make all these measures problematic: 1) what the actual verdict would be—ostensibly a guilty verdict would not mean any significant protests since the system “worked” this time, and 2) what the level of public displeasure would be if there was a “not guilty” verdict. In the spectacle of integration, however, these questions are irrelevant. The mere possibility of even the most timid dissent is an opportunity for the institutions of the status quo—state, media, major commercial interests, etc.—to add another layer of solidification on its hegemony by implying that however upset one might be by this miscarriage of justice (and the larger problem of criminal justice among poor and racially disenfranchised communities), the alternative is exponentially worse—so worse that we have to deploy all these extraordinary measures to protect you, even if the actual number of people who protest do so in an non-threatening way and that those who are violent create less mayhem than a typical Saturday night after the all bars and clubs close.

This also explains Trump’s comments about crime and violence and his ostentatious displays of support for police agencies. While the statistics on crime are quite stark in their depiction of a precipitous drop in the frequency of violent crime in most of the country, the rhetoric from the president utilizes the strategy of tension to arouse the menace of fear and the hope that these threats (usually expressed in the language of illegal immigration) will be forcefully and viciously put down. The recent mini-controversy over Trump’s comments at a gathering of police officers in New Jersey, where he encouraged the attendees not to be gentle when placing suspects into cars to the apparent delight of many those assembled behind him, is an example of how the integrated spectacle works.

But to bring this back to one of the observations made at the start of this post, the protests, whatever their magnitude, will also feature a different kind of “coverage from below” thanks the ability of amateur and semi-professional journalists to also capture images of conflict and contestation combined with the advancement in mobile device technology. Armed with device applications that can record sound and video and immediately broadcast it live onto the web, these journalists offer to show not only images and content that would have been censored or edited by mainstream outlets in the past, but together construct a counter-narrative to the traditional frames of social unrest. While these alternate accounts can make no greater claim on “the truth” as those more stylized productions of mainstream broadcasters, they contribute to a much fuller account of the event and add a texture and authenticity that has long been lacking in processed news production.

Analytically, they are also examples of the spectacle of disintegration that this space has discussed in previous posts.  The spectacle of disintegration occurs when the dominant apparatus of power, (in the case of the turmoil in St. Louis, the local media outlets, major economic interests, government and police) can no longer control the effects of the spectacle as they could in the past. So when the police force engages in an act of brutality (and there was a particularly egregious one in the immediate aftermath of the Stockley verdict), the police and city government cannot use a compliant and submissive media to edit out the problematic footage or provide an immediate justifying narrative to soften the verbal impact of seeing such imagery. Moreover, unilateral journalists on the receiving end of the state’s weaponry shatter the menace of social disruption and humanize those who would normally be depicted in problematic generalizations by the institutions of the status quo. As more individuals and crowd-sourced media operations get under way, the ability to paint any kind of coherent narrative around an event of major political or social significance becomes all but impossible, robbing the dominant institutions of their ability to shape a single story for millions of people.

When the spectacle fails to keep the masses properly pacified and enraptured, the threat of genuine sustained social change requires the need to use state violence in a more direct manner—more in the spirit of the concentrated spectacle of the old totalitarian regimes. Already we see government agencies finding ways to limit the ability of unaffiliated citizen journalist from gathering content that might appear to portray them in a negative light. As their grip on power becomes more tenuous, to what measures will they resort to regain this control? This is perhaps another thing to look for as events like St. Louis continue to unfold. Will these autonomous digital media actors become targets of the state and other dominant interests? Will there be new regulations regarding the use of digital media platforms in certain circumstances? Will lawmakers and law enforcers rethink the sanctity of “free speech” if it exposes them to unwanted scrutiny, criticism and calls for change? These are the issues at stake as the spectacle continues to fragment in a world in disarray.

 

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: New Press, 2012).

[2] Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell, Italian Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 101.

[3] Debord, Comments on the Society of the Society of the Spectacle, 10.

Trump and the Media Are Not Enemies

Before the media’s attention turned to Houston and the unfolding flood disaster there, there was much rumination on the political rally of Donald Trump in Phoenix on August 22nd. The event was a throwback to the large campaign rallies that were the hallmark of the Trump presidential campaign and were a big part of his success with a large segment of the population. Of particular interest were Trump’s comments about the media, especially the following:

“Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I’m saying tonight, I can tell you.”[1]

This as well as other comments from the rally were more evidence that Trump was intentionally stoking the dislike of the media among his fans in order to rally their support and distract the larger viewing public of Trump’s declining approval ratings. [2] Moreover, it gave some hope that now, finally, Trump had gone too far and that his Teflon-like resistance to bad press and public condemnation would cause his star to fall. But such is not to be the case. If anything, Trump’s anti-media comments at the Phoenix rally give special insight as to the source of his power and why so many who are eager to pronounce the death of his presidency will continue to be disappointed.

At the heart of Trump’s anti-media comments is a key paradox. Trump’s supporters—and much of the larger general public—do indeed despise the media.[3]  The reasons for this are usually chalked up to partisan politics—conservatives see the mainstream media as in the tank for liberal values and the Democratic Party while progressives see conservative outlets as repugnant Republican propaganda. This explanation, however, while no doubt reflecting part of the answer, overlooks the larger structural and global aspects of how the media are organized and what compels it to produce the propaganda that it does.

This space will offer an alternative explanation. Because it is devoted to exploring the ideas of the spectacle put forth by Guy Debord, the answer sketched out here will draw its explanation from Society of the Spectacle, and in particular thesis #13:

“The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory”[4]

The French gloire, similar to English, implies a shine and magnificence, but one can replace the word “glory” with “infamy”, and in doing so, one can get a better idea of what Debord might be referring to in the context of Trump’s relationship with the media. Instinctually, Trump is aware that the media cannot help themselves whenever he goes on one of his rants in front of his fans or sends out an outrageous tweet. Though the individual reporters and editors may loathe to cover such developments, the internal logic of the media and of spectacular capitalism demands that such provocations and declarations be covered and analyzed. This gets to what Debord is referring to by the idea of the means and ends of the spectacle—Trumps outrageous commentary garners substantial ratings, which benefits news and media outlets that cover said comments. These news and media outlets then fill their substantial amount of airtime and print space with commentary about the commentary—whether it is critical of Trump or supportive of him is not important, just so that there is an abundant supply of it and that it sustains the ratings the original comments brought. Inevitably, the media commentary and punditry, combined with the demands of governing and outside events, results in Trump making new, often more outrageous comments, which then unleashes a new cycle of commentary and counter-commentary ad infinitum. All the while, the ratings remain high, revenue from ads are robust, and those who own, control and benefit from this arrangement become more powerful. So long as Trump continues to be Trump, there is no reason why this arrangement will end. Indeed, the real threat here is if Trump every decided to not talk/tweet. The system may not be able survive such a scenario.

For some evidence of this arrangement and why it is not going away anytime soon, see these two quotes from high ranking media executives commenting on Donald Trump. The first is from Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS:

  “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun….I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”[5]

This quote is from the head of CNN International Tony Maddox:

“[Trump] is good for business…It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period…If you look at the groups that Trump has primarily targeted: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert…every single one of those has seen a quite remarkable growth in their viewing figures, in their sales figures.”[6]

This still leaves the question of what is going on with the popular hatred of the media and the masses that both loathe the media but also can’t stop watching. Again, part of it is partisanship—Fox viewers hate all the media except Fox, who they give a pass to, while a similar thing happens with viewers of more centrist media outlets (with one or two exceptions, there really is no  left wing media in the US).  But if one watches both Fox and MSNBC or CNN carefully, what one is struck by the similarities that exist in terms of presenting a vision of an idealized consumer life that is, for the large part, beyond the reach of many of its viewers. As Debord said in Society of the Spectacle:

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. “[7]

In between all the partisan bickering and canned discussion are an endless stream of human interest stories, celebrity profiles and advertisements that glamorize and glorify a way of living that are bursting at the seams with passion, pleasure, prosperity and happiness. Or, put in a more vulgar, (but also perhaps more effective language), Matt Taibbi says, “America’s TV networks have spent the last forty years falling over each other trying to find better and more efficient ways to sell tits to the 18-to-35 demographic.”[8] The media establishment barrages the viewer with titillating images to sell its products and get the masses to watch its shows by appealing to the emotions, fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams of its audience. Eventually however, people start to realize they are, to use Debord’s figurative words, “in chains.” They realize the images and dreams on the screen are illusory, but they also don’t want to give up the slim hope that they might still come true for them (if no one else). The appeal of Donald Trump stems from the fact that, realizing the media dream is fake, they are drawn to someone who is “strong” enough to go after this machine that holds them in a state of paralysis. They delight in Trump’s denunciations of CNN as “fake news” because in a certain, strange way, he is right….ironically, it is not the news that is fake, but everything else on the channel—the ads, the phony perkiness of the anchors, the contrived interest of the reporter interviewing the obscure reality television star with apparent bated breath. They are tired of being spoon fed this drivel but can’t detach themselves from it when it is all their body can now digest. Their one hope is a man who knows this awful media apparatus so well he can identify its weak points and attack it where it will do the most damage.

But the lie here is that Trump isn’t attacking any weak points. He is only making it stronger. The audiences, as the quotes from the media executives show, are flocking to them in greater numbers, hoping to see if the media monster will be slayed and not realizing that this is not really in the cards. Trump’s success is the media’s success and vice versa. If something like the Mueller investigation succeeds in setting forth a chain of events that end the Trump presidency, the media will suffer for it in the long run. But it won’t be destroyed. And that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this—the only entity that can truly be vanquished here is Trump. The media, and the society of the spectacle that it helps to create, will persist long after Trump is gone.

[1] See http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/08/23/president-trump-phoenix-rally-full-entire.cnn

[2] See https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/23/16189198/cnn-don-lemon-rebuke-trump-phoenix-speech

[3] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[5] Les Moonves quoted in:  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/les-moonves-trump-cbs-220001

[6] Tony Maddox quoted in http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/taibbi-blame-media-for-creating-world-dumb-enough-for-trump-w499649

[7] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 7.

[8] Matt Taibbi, “We’re Hiding from the Ugly Truth in the Imus Scandal” http://www.alternet.org/story/50726/we%27re_hiding_from_the_ugly_truth_in_the_imus_scandal